Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Navigating the Armenian American supermarket

The produce section scene at the Super King in Glassell Park, April 2011
The produce section scene at the Super King in Glassell Park, April 2011
Photo by Lory Tatoulian

As Southern California's immigrant enclaves have grown and evolved, so have their grocery stores. The ethnic mega-supermarket is now part of the regional landscape, making it as easy to buy once hard-to-find products from around the world as it is to shop at Vons or Ralphs. Want banana leaves for Central American tamales? No need seek out a carnicería in Pico-Union any more. Southeast Asian sambal sauce? There are supermarkets that practically stock aisles of it.

All you need is a good guide. So this week, Multi-American is kicking off an occasional series of informal guides to navigating the ethnic supermarket. Your first guide comes from guest blogger Lory Tatoulian, a writer, comic and highly savvy Armenian supermarket insider. Welcome, Lory.

The Armenian spirit is big, and so is its belly.

As the Armenian population in Los Angeles has exponentially grown in the last fifty years, so have its supermarkets. Since the 1960’s, little bodega-type markets unobtrusively appeared in Armenian enclaves: Pasadena, Hollywood, and Glendale. For years, these small markets were the best-kept secret in Los Angeles, offering exotic Mediterranean groceries for dirt-cheap prices. A place where the cashiers called you hokis, a term of endearment that means “my soul.”

Then came Super King Markets, the loud and flamboyant response to a city that now hosts ten percent of the six million Armenians in the world.

This colossal warehouse grocery chain is bodega on steroids, featuring a dizzying assortment of industrial-sized jugs of olive oil, five-gallon buckets of tahini (sesame paste) and 20-pound bags of bulghur (durum wheat). Its the Costcoization of the mom and pop market which now draws Latinos, Asians and Armenians, all clamoring for the five pounds of cantaloupe for 99 cents.

When entering the Super King in Glassell Park, one should proceed as if competing in a sporting event. Your opponents are the little Armenian grandmas, dressed in black, who will push, prod and pull you away in order to get to those 10-cents-a-pound tomatoes faster than you can. They will dig through a bin of cucumbers with a Buddhist concentration, and then throw you a fierce look from the corner of their eye, as a warning to not even think about taking their plundered possessions.

Yes, these are the same sweet grandmas who nurture and love their children to eternity, but when it comes to buying groceries (especially at discount prices) their combative instincts kick in. Don’t be intimidated, use your metal shopping cart as armor and continue on your pursuit through the vertiginous aisles of low-priced goods.

You want to start with the most ancient and primordial forms of Armenian food: lavash bread. Armenians have been baking lavash for over 10,000 years in underground clay ovens in the Anatolian plateau. Nowadays, this thin soft bread is neatly packaged in plastic and available for a mere 99 cents.

A staple pairing in an Armenian household is bread and cheese. The varieties of feta cheese can be bewildering, the favorites being Armenian, Greek and Bulgarian feta.

The only problem is that waiting in line to get your cheese can make you feel as if you have aged just as much as the cheese you are buying (and yes, that was a cheesy comment). But you have been officially forewarned of the likelihood of waiting in line for over twenty minutes for your number to be called out, while numberless grannies zip right in front of you and get “special” treatment because they are the counter clerk’s neighbor’s cousin’s friend from the old country.

If your patience wears thin, simply grab a packaged Karoun Dairies string cheese, and melt it on your lavash; I promise you can live off this combination for the next eighty years.

Despite the ban on commercial outdoor grilling in Glendale, Armenians are defiant, and will continue to cook their kebab. The store’s meat section is a testament to the importance placed on skewered meat. Burly men call out numbers in a baritone voice as if distributing rations from the royal court of Super King himself, so the commoners will have their ground beef for their grape leaves.

If you want quick deli meat, try basterma: a thinly sliced garlic beef prosciutto, or its cousin soujoukh: a zesty sausage that is seasoned with a spice called chemin. Warning! Do not consume before a date or an important meeting.

(To be continued: Stay tuned tomorrow as Lory shops "the science project section" and finds a wistful interpretation of Middle East peace in the olive oil aisle.)